We were doing so well, until we got into the higher numbers. Not only did we have to learn the language, the French words for the numbers, we had to do the math as well. To say the teacher explained to us — (A “we” that could be only described as a collection of people from the land of misfit toys. Myself – the American, the two women from South Korea, the Cambodian, the Russian, the Mexican, and the 5 Arabs.) — this would be an overstatement. But in her defense, what good reason could there be to stop giving the additional numbers their own names and start combining them in different math problems? For example — the number for eighty is not given its own name, no, it is quatre-vingts (4×20).
Deep in my wandering brain, I thought of the first time I had heard this four and twenty. Yes, yes, baked in a pie…
“Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing.
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?”
It was my first music box. It was red and yellow, shaped like a tiny radio. You spun the knob and it sang the nursery rhyme. This one was my favorite. I dialed it in. The birds survived every time. Imagine that I thought – baked in a pie – and they survived! Glorious! I sang it again and again.
As the nursery rhyme repeated in my head, the teacher had already gotten to the nineties. It was even worse. In the nineties, you have to multiply and add. You can imagine the nightmare that 99 brings for a non-French speaking person — quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (4×20+10+9).
I suppose it will come as no surprise. To test out of this first unit, we had to hold imaginary conversations with the French officials. The first scenario, she explained, was in a store. I was to be the clerk selling dresses (so far so good.) She would be the customer. I looked at the pictures she gave to me. It showed a dress hanging on the rack. As big as life the tag read, $99.99. My heart sank. She asked how much it was. I started doing the math. The numbers raced in my head…all clunked together with the Song of Sixpence. I began my quatre-vignt-dix-ing… then stopped and said, in my best French — this dress was on sale. (Wasn’t that a dainty dish, I thought?) She laughed. I passed the exam.
I have been given the tools I need to find my way in and out of life’s pie. And so I keep singing!